On penance & pork ribs

12 Oct

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Recently I got to spend a couple of hours with a very dear childhood friend, one that I have seen only three times in forty years. Before boarding a flight from Maine back to their home in Memphis my friend and his wife stopped by for lunch at our house just outside of Portland.

I served a traditional Sunday meal, including my meatballs.

The Memphis pork ribs you see here are from Charlie Vergos Rendezvous in Memphis. They are a gift from my friend John and his lovely wife Gina, overnighted shortly after our visit together, and I enjoyed them quite a lot. Another rack is in the freezer, but probably won’t be for very long.

From the time we were infants until the day he moved away to college John and I lived half a block from each other in Brooklyn. We went to the same elementary school, played on the same baseball and basketball teams, hung with the same friends, even dated some of the same girls. My father’s sister and her family lived in an apartment just below John and his. John is also distantly related to my Aunt Rita, though I do not recall precisely in what way.

It was good to see my friend again. I only wish there had been time to apologize to him.

I have been meaning to for a very long time. And just never have found the opportunity—or the nerve.

The incident occurred somewhere between third and fifth grades. John and I were sitting next to each other in class, as often we did, when the teacher, a nun most probably, began an exercise unrelated to the standard curriculum. She would ask us general questions about all kinds of topics that children might be aware of and all we had to do was call out an answer. Things like “What’s your favorite team, Mets or Yankees?” or “Who’s the best character on TV?” It was simple stuff, really. No books, no note taking, no homework to fret over.

It was all very harmless.

Mostly.

But then the teacher committed what I now believe to have been a terrible error in judgment. In a neighborhood built and still occupied by hard-working immigrants with little education and a deep reliance on manual labor skills, she asked something along the lines of “What’s the dirtiest, worst job that you would never want to do?”

This in a classroom filled with the children and grandchildren of men who laid sewer pipe and poured concrete and rolled asphalt and put down train track to feed their families.

When I blurted out—innocently, I assure you—the words “garbage man” John’s sharp elbow crashed into my rib cage with such force that I could barely catch my breath for a while. When I asked my friend what made him do such a thing he remained silent.

I can still see the anger—but, more likely, hurt—in his face.

Some time later I learned that John’s father Tulio, a strong and decent man, made his living as a New York City sanitation worker.

I don’t know exactly when or how this knowledge came to me. I only know that John and I have never discussed the incident. Not once.

All these years later I’m still haunted by the cruelty that I showed to my friend.

It was only when my wife and I were enjoying John’s generous gift of Memphis pork ribs that our teacher’s role first entered my mind. What was she thinking, I wonder. Most if not all of the kids in her classroom lived in modest apartments headed by men who held “dirty” jobs. Not one of my friends’ fathers wore a white collar to work. And so John could not have been the only child who heard his father’s profession called out by one of their friends that day.

I just hope that the others had better friends than John had, friends who apologized for their stupidity a lot sooner than I have.

The house we lived in

3 Oct

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This is my parents’ wedding day, back in the fall of 1955. The elderly man in the black tuxedo escorting my mother to a hired car is her father, Giovanni Giamundo. His wife Ursula, my grandmother, did not live to see her eldest daughter marry.

The solid green awning just to my grandfather’s right obscures the family’s candy store/fountain service at 753 Liberty Avenue, in the neighborhood of Brooklyn known (oddly, I always have thought) as East New York. An adjacent building, at 751 Liberty, was also my grandfather’s. At the time it housed a fish market on the ground level, but the space later became a cluttered office for my Uncle Joe’s small general contracting business.

There were three “railroad” apartments in each of my grandfather’s two buildings, or six altogether.

Each of them was occupied by one of his grown children, as well as their young and growing families.

And so when I speak of my family’s closeness, as often I do here, well, I ain’t kidding around.

I will understand if you cannot in any way relate to the clan-like architecture of my upbringing. Few people could. The woman I am married to, an only child to educated, affluent professionals, has long been wary of my history. How, she wonders, can so many blood kin live under the same roof, gather in the same backyard, attend the same church and school, eat at the same table without, sooner or later, wanting to slaughter one another?

You may be wondering the same thing.

Remarkably, I never have.

And naive is not a word that often is used to describe me, so far as I am aware.

But for a few brief periods my position has been pretty much unwavering: I am a very lucky man to have been reared not by one but by six loving mothers (my own, plus Aunts Anna, Laura, Rita, Frances and Marie) and a bunch of devoted fathers (dad, along with Uncles Joe, Dominic, Chick and Casey). I may have shared an apartment (and bedroom) with my brothers Joe and Mike, but there were many other siblings around to rely upon. In no particular order these included Big John, Josephine, Vito, Bobo, Joseph, Big Ursula and Little Ursula, James, John and Rocco.

The house that we lived in was a full one.

My mother and brother Joe were the last to leave Liberty Avenue. The fountain service had long ago been shuttered, so had Uncle Joe’s old office. It was a sad but long overdue goodbye to a special place in all of our lives.

After mom died my brothers and I had the funeral procession drive around the old neighborhood and make a brief but very deliberate stop in front of 751-753 Liberty.

It was the only moment in the entire day’s events when nobody, not one soul in a very large group of mourners, had a single word to say.

The fig trees of autumn

17 Sep

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I never should have left Brooklyn.

Jersey was okay. It is the Garden State, after all. And my small plot of Hudson County earth produced respectable amounts of fine vegetables the years that I spent there.

But Maine? Completely different story.

Most irritating to me is the climate’s absolute refusal to accommodate fig trees in their natural habitat—that is, the ground.

Those of us who wish to grow figs here in Plant Hardiness Zone 5, admittedly a very small group, must instead keep our trees confined to pots. These pots may spend the warm-weather months outdoors but if left out in the harsh Maine winter, the trees will freeze solid and most probably die.

Not so in the land where I was raised.

In horticultural terms Brooklyn, New York, is known as Plant Hardiness Zone 7, meaning that its coldest average temperature in winter is 20 degrees warmer than it is here in Southern Maine. Fig trees grow all across Brooklyn, always have and always will. They grow in gardens, alongside front porches, behind wire fences, even out of concrete sidewalks. Sometimes the people who tend to these trees cover them in winter for protection, sometimes they don’t. In my experience, which is meaningful, the results aren’t all that different.

Fig trees are allowed to live freely in the grounds of Kings County.

Here in Maine my fig trees—four of them currently, though once there were as many as eight—spend late October through March in an insulated garage, tucked against one of two motorcycles that also go dormant in winter. In early April I move the trees to a sun-filled window seat in an upstairs bedroom where they can slowly move from dormancy back to life. The trees do not leave the comfort and protection of my home until well after the last threat of frost has passed, mid-June normally.

I don’t dare keep the fig trees on my own property in summer, as the wildlife that roam freely and hungrily all around would strip the trees bare well before their fruit has had a chance to ripen. Instead, my fig trees spend their summers in a fenced-in community garden a few miles from my home, the same garden where I grow tomatoes and garlic and other vegetables, and where unobstructed sunlight is abundant all season long.

I transport the fig trees to and from their summer residence in shifts, as their size prevents them from fitting together in any vehicle that I own currently. Sometimes the trees return to my home in autumn after a good season, but many times, as with this season, they do not.

You many wonder, then, why a person might put himself through all the trouble.

I wonder the same thing myself, more often than is gratifying.

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But then there moments like these.

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And these.

I am a hopeless sentimentalist. Plain and simple.

King of hearts

7 Aug

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One of the most solemn men that I have ever known is also responsible for possibly the greatest belly laugh of my entire life.

The man, chief of cardiac surgery at a renowned New York medical insitution, had one day earlier spent eight hours performing an open-heart procedure on a 42-year-old patient named Joe.

“So,” said the man, sounding uncharacteristically warm as he took a seat on his patient’s hospital bed, “how are you feeling today?”

“Okay,” Joe whispered unconvincingly. “How are you feeling today?”

The surgeon smiled briefly and reported that he was doing just fine, then moved closer to his patient.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” he said sounding genuinely concerned.

Struggling with discomfort all Joe could manage was a head nod.

“What I’m wondering, see, I mean considering your history, as well as your family’s, of course, which we’ve discussed…”

For a chief surgeon the man was coming awfully close to stammering, which raised the anxiety level in the room considerably. After all, this was not the first but the second time he had performed surgery on this patient in just five years. How could a professional possessing such skill and confidence behave so tentatively? What awful news was he attempting to deliver?

“Would you ever, just possibly, well…” He paused and straightened himself, as if readying for confession, then blurted out, but ever so softly, “consider the idea of becoming a vegetarian?”

The words hovered above the men for what felt like several moments of electrified silence. In reality it took but a few seconds for Joe to summon what little strength he could muster and answer the man.

“Fuck. No.”

The surgeon and I collapsed into such prolonged laughter that two nurses and as many aides appeared at the doorway to see what the fuss was about.

I probably should have mentioned my presence in the room earlier. Joe is my brother, you see, and I love him very, very much. Where else in the world could I possibly have been at that moment?

Today is his 58th birthday. More important, sixteen years have passed since the last time he was wheeled into an operating room. So this is a good day, one that is worth celebrating.

Joe takes much better care of himself these days. He doesn’t smoke anymore, goes to the gym every morning before work, golfs most every weekend from April through November, and moved to a much nicer neighborhood than he had grown accustomed to for more years than was wise or necessary.

I wish I could say that he eats as well as he should. Joe was diligent about keeping a healthful diet for a few years after his surgeries, but as time has lapsed so too has his discipline.

A heart-healthful vegetarian he is not.

Like me my brother is a product of a very particular culinary heritage: Italian American. More to the point, we each stubbornly embrace this heritage, no matter how many annual physicals we put behind us.

Joe is also a bachelor who works long hours, which presents its own set of menu challenges. His refrigerator is often stocked with prepared foods, many from the Italian grocery/deli a few blocks from his apartment in Queens. There are often balls of fresh mozzarella, arancini stuffed with ground beef and peas, chicken and/or eggplant parm, sausages with broccoli rabe; you get the idea.

I visit Joe a few times a year, always staying in his apartment, usually just the two of us. For a while there I tried being a good brother, suggesting going out for sushi when I really wanted a burger and a beer, or Chinese when our favorite old-school Italian Don Peppe was what I desired. I cannot tell you how many times I have sneaked away alone to a White Castle in order to protect my brother from an unhealthful craving that we both share.

Lately when Joe and I spend a couple days together we eat and drink what we want, without regard to his or our family’s unpleasant coronary history. Recently we were sitting at the bar at his favorite Italian spot in the new neighborhood. About midway into a bottle of red I stopped and surveyed the landscape before us: manicotti, meatballs, lasagne, baked clams, pizza topped with burrata and prosciutto di parma.

I thought about how the surgeon had once tried—and failed—to move my brother in a new direction, but kept it to myself. We were enjoying our evening out together and I wasn’t about to ruin things by being a nag. Besides, I don’t exactly have the cred to lecture anybody about responsible eating.

Maybe it’s time I started working on becoming a better brother.

Happy Birthday Joe!

Pasta with corn & mint

3 Aug

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This was not a planned blog event. I was just throwing something together on the fly last evening, with no intention of sharing a “recipe.”

Thing is, fresh corn and mint from the garden make a really nice combination. I’m wagering that even an ill-planned post such as this might at least provide some inspiration before summer’s end.

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Basically what we have here is an ear’s worth of fresh corn (blanched and then shaved off the cobb), a handful of fresh mint, a couple garlic scapes (a clove or two will do just fine), a chopped hot pepper, and a couple anchovy filets (optional, of course). Saute for a few minutes while your pasta is cooking.

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When the pasta is al dente turn up the heat in the pan to high and add the pasta.

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Then add some of the (well-salted) pasta water, cook it off until almost (but not entirely) evaporated, and you’re all set.

My guess is that I’ll be throwing this one together a couple more times before fresh corn season is over.

Aunt Laura

25 Jul

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When I was an infant, or thereabouts, young enough to be spending nights trapped inside the confines of a baby’s crib, I found it necessary, on at least one occasion, to break free of both my sleeping station and the apartment that housed it.

I like to think of this as the first time I ran away from home.

After making my way to the living room and out the door I crawled up a flight of stairs to the apartment above ours and scratched at the door until somebody let me in.

The person who welcomed me in that pre-dawn hour was my mother’s brother Dominic’s wife, Laura. Aunt Laura scooped me up and cared for me like her own until mom woke up and came to collect me a short while later.

I hadn’t run away at all, you see. I’d simply gone from one of my homes in a six-apartment building crammed with family members to another one, that’s all. Every door to every apartment was home to each and every one of us, around 30 people give or take.

Laura died this morning, seven years to the day that Dominic left us. True to our family’s stubborn insistence on staying close, a couple of her loved ones made sure that she didn’t have to go it alone.

Dominic has been visiting Laura a lot lately; so has my mother. The only thing that Laura wasn’t quite able to fathom is why only she could see her husband and his sister near her bedside these past weeks, why only she could hear them talking about the place where they soon would be taking her.

I hope that our inability to see or hear what she saw and heard didn’t frustrate Laura too very much. I would just hate to think that it troubled her in any way.

All of us would hate that.

She was a dearly loved and vital member of our family, and is already horribly, horribly missed.

Pasta with garlic scapes & walnuts

15 Jul

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Growing 200-plus head of garlic every year (232 this season, thank you very much) I go through a lot of garlic scapes. I’m sure you’re seeing them at the farm stands and at your better grocery stores right about now.

It’s the season. And it doesn’t last long.

Most of the scapes that I don’t pass along to friends wind up being roasted as a side dish, but plenty find their way into a simple aglio e olio (literally, garlic and oil) sauce with my pasta. I like swapping the garlic cloves for the scapes because it adds a really nice texture to the aglio e olio. This version we have here also includes walnuts, which adds both texture and flavor.

It’s one of those super simple pasta dishes that you wind up craving over and over, so give it a try while the scapes are still around. Otherwise you’ll have to wait until next year.

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Get your pasta water going because this won’t take more than a few minutes. Then grab a few scapes (I’ve used four here, as I was only feeding myself on this occasion).

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Remove the tips (seen at rear) and chop the scapes and some hot pepper up, like so. You’ll also need a small handful of chopped walnuts.

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Saute in olive oil for a few minutes, or just until the scapes have softened (just don’t let them get crispy). Oh, and I’ve also added a few anchovy filets, even though I know most of you won’t. (C’mon, live a little, anchovies are awesome!)

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When your pasta is just shy of al dente turn up the heat under the scapes and add the pasta to the pan.

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Then add some of the (well-salted) pasta water and incorporate.

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After the water has all but evaporated (a minute or so) you are good to go.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, garlic scapes can last for weeks in the fridge, so don’t be shy about stocking up the next time you run across them.

I mean, can you ever have enough aglio e olio?